February 22, 2010
Last Saturday I spent eight hours with three dozen other people in a
basement conference room of a Washington hotel engaged in an extraordinary
exercise of mind and hope.
The topic was, by itself, depressingly familiar: building an anti-war
coalition. What made it so strikingly different was the nature of those at
the table. They included progressives, conservatives, traditional liberals
and libertarians. Some reached back to the Reagan years or to 196
activism, some - including an SDS leader from the University of Maryland
and several Young Americans for Liberty - were still in college.
In a time when politics is supposed to be hopelessly polarized along the
lines proposed by Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann, the most heated debate
occurred not between left and right but over tactics between Ralph Nader
and Bill Greider.
There was an economics professor from a naval war college and the
executive director of Veterans for Peace; there was Katrina vanden Heuvel,
editor of the Nation, me from the Progressive Review, and editors from the
American Conservative and Reason Magazine.
The session had been conceived by long time activist and current head of
Voters for Peace, Kevin Zeese, along with artist George D. O'Neill, Jr.
who had been chair of the Rockford Institute, a leading traditional
conservative intellectual think tank in the 1980s, and who had worked on
Pat Buchanan's 1992 presidential campaign.
What we shared was an antipathy towards war. It was not so much that we
were anti-war as we were seeking a post-war world. Our approaches might
differ but our goals were, at worst, next door.
As Zeese put it in an introduction the session, it was about "views from
the right, left and radical center, views that reflect those of many
Americans which are not represented in the political dialogue in Congress
or the White House, or the mainstream media. Throughout American history
there have been times when movements developed that were outside the
limited political dialogue of the two major parties. . .
"Polling actually shows majorities often oppose war and escalation of war.
But these views are not represented in government or the media. In
addition, opposition to war is not limited to people on the left; it
covers the American political spectrum and it always has. There is a long
history of opposition to war among traditional conservatives. Their
philosophy goes back to President Washington's Farewell Address where he
urged America to avoid 'foreign entanglements.' It has showed itself
throughout American history. The Anti-Imperialist League opposed the
colonialism of the Philippines in the 1890s. The largest anti-war movement
in history, the America First Committee, opposed World War II and had a
strong middle America conservative foundation in its make-up. The
strongest speech of an American president against militarism was President
Eisenhower's 1961 final speech from the White House warning America
against the growing military-industrial complex. In recent years the
militarist neo-conservative movement has become dominate of conservatism
in the United States. Perhaps none decry this more than traditional
conservatives who oppose massive military budgets, militarism and the
"Of course, the left also has a long history of opposition to war from the
Civil War to early imperialism in the Philippines, World Wars I and II
through Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. It includes socialists, Quakers,
social justice Catholics and progressives. Indeed, the opposition to entry
into World War I was led by the left including socialists, trade
unionists, pacifists including people like union leader and presidential
candidate Eugene Debs, Nobel Peace Prize winner Jane Addams and author and
political activist Helen Keller. . .
"Opposition to Vietnam brought together peace advocates with the civil
rights movement, highlighted by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s outspoken
opposition to the war. . . .
"What are the ingredients for a successful anti-war, pro-peace movement?
- The anti-war movement needs to be a reflection of not just the left but
of Middle America and traditional conservatives who oppose war.
- A successful anti-war peace movement cannot give up the flag of
patriotism. It needs to grab hold of America's patriotic impulses and show
the United States can be the nation many imagine us to be-leading by
positive example, helping in crisis, being a force for good, rather than
propagating military dominance and hegemony.
- A successful anti-war movement needs to be a place where veterans, from
grunts to generals, can openly participate, share their stories and
explain the lessons they learned from American militarism.
- A well organized anti-war movement will have committees not only
reaching out to military and business, but to academics, students, clergy,
labor, nurses, doctors, teachers and a host of others.
- The 1960s tactics of big marches and congressional demonstrations have
their role but they are not sufficient. The media and government have
adjusted to them. We need to use tools like voter initiatives and
referenda to break through and put our issues before the voters. And, we
need to learn from around the world what has worked; for example, general
strikes, whether of a few hours or few days, have shown unified opposition
to government policy
- Make war relevant to Americans' day-to-day lives by constantly linking
the cost of war to their communities, incomes, and bank accounts. People
need to learn that Empire is not good for the U.S. economy.
- Both parties are dominated by pro-militarist elected officials. The
anti-war movement needs to be strong in criticizing candidates who call
for a larger military, escalation of war, or other militarist policies."
Clips from the bios of those at the session suggest the unusual
cross-ideological and cross-cultural presence:
- A Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. He also is the Robert A. Taft
Fellow at the American Conservative Defense Alliance and served as a
Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan.
- His leading work includes a biography of historian William A. Williams,
the Encyclopedia of the American Left, five volumes on the lives and work
of the Hollywood Blacklistees, . . . and eight volumes of nonfiction comic
art (adaptations of Howard Zinn and Studs Terkel, graphic biographies of
Isadora Duncan and Emma Goldman, The Beats, The Art of Harvey Kurtzman,
- He has been a regular contributor to Rolling Stone, and currently covers
national security for its National Affairs section. He is a contributing
editor at The Nation, a contributing writer at Mother Jones, and a senior
correspondent for The American Prospect.
- An associate professor of economics at the Naval Postgraduate School in
Monterey, California and a Research Fellow with the Hoover Institution at
Stanford University. From 1982 to 1984, he was the senior economist for
health policy, and from 1983 to 1984 he was the senior economist for
energy policy, with President Reagan's Council of Economic Advisers.
- Founding member of the Washington chapter of the National Association of
Black Journalists; executive board member of the National Alliance of
Third World Journalists. . .
- Founding Managing Editor and current Executive Editor of The American
Conservative. Research director of Pat Buchanan's 2000 campaign.
- Executive Director of Veterans For Peace. His volunteer social and
economic justice activist work include membership in Military Families
Speak Out, coordinating committee member for the Bring Them Home Now
campaign against the U.S. occupation of Iraq and Co-Chair of United For
Peace and Justice.
- Legislative aide for the armed services for Senator Robert Taft, Jr., of
Ohio from 1973 through 1976 and held a similar position with Senator Gary
Hart of Colorado from 1977 through 1986. An opponent of the Iraq War, has
written for the Marine Corps Gazette, and Defense and the National
Interest. . .
- For over four decades has exposed problems and organized millions of
citizens into more than 100 public interest groups to advocate for
solutions. . .
- Active within the Democratic, Republican, and Green parties at various
times. As a boy, he supported George McGovern for president in 1972 partly
because of the Democrat's anti-war stance. In the mid 1970s, he became a
conservative who backed Ronald . . .
- Managing editor of Reason magazine, is the author of Rebels on the Air:
An Alternative History of Radio in America.
Notably absent from the session were members of the extremist center,
liberal professors seeking to prove their manhood by backing yet another
war, legislators afraid to challenge the Pentagon, belligerent bullies and
the cowardly complacent. And everyone in the room was trying something
Which, when you come to think of it, is just what happens when you make
peace. People who have been shooting at each other sit down and find a way
to share some space. One might expect that anti-war activists would
understand this, but too often we all regard our political beliefs not as
the product of imperfect and struggling minds but as our sacred identity,
our justification and our privileged demographic. We reduce politics to
the theology of the self-righteous rather than as an imperfect search for
As I sat around that table, I tried to recall those few occasions when I
had experienced something close to this - few, that is, since the days
when I sat around the family table as the third child of six and learned
about living with those different from oneself and more than willing to
Some of the later times worked; some didnâ€™t. One that worked was the
anti-freeway coalition of the 1960s and 70s that kept Washington from
becoming another Los Angeles. It was started by among the least likely
activists - black and white middle class homeowners whose neighborhood was
about to be ruined. It expanded to include those of us in the civil rights
group SNCC as well as the all white Georgetown Citizens Association. I
once wrote of the leader, "By all rights, Sammie Abbott should have been
disqualified as a DC leader on at least three grounds: he was too white,
he was too old, and he lived in the suburbs. Instead, this short man with
a nail-file voice became the nemesis of public officials for years.
Abbott, the grandson of Arab Christians who fled Turkish persecution in
Syria, had been a labor organizer, a bricklayer and a World War II veteran
with a Bronze Star."
There was only one qualification to join the anti-freeway movement:
opposition to freeways. And the success of our effort - rare among such
highway protests - left a mark on a city colony devoid of rights and helps
to explain how - just two years after the riots - we were able to form a
biracial third party that would hold seats on the city council and/or
school board for 25 years.
I would come to think of it as existential politics - in which one defined
one's existence by one's actions rather than by one's ethnicity, class,
party registration or magazine subscriptions. And it was a sort of
politics that would become increasingly rare.
But it didn't always work. In the mid sixties, I was editing a
neighborhood newspaper in Washington's biracial Capitol East. Things were
already well beyond the capacity of any one community to solve. America's
cities were starting to burn and you could feel the heat even in Capitol
East. In September 1967, anti-poverty activist Lola Singletary convinced
the white businessmen of H Street to form a organization dedicated to
involvement in community problems.
In late 1967 I came up with the idea of pulling together the various
leaders of Capitol East into an informal leadership council with the
possibility of forming a major neighborhood coalition. Fourteen people
attended a meeting on January 31: 7 white and 7 black. Among our purposes:
- To share our group differences so we can increase our knowledge of one
another's group positions, plans and needs.
- To increase opportunities to share our group concerns so that we can
better support one another's group efforts.
- To unite in common action where we have agreement.
It was too late. A little more than two months later, the riots broke out
and Capitol East had two of the four major riot strips, including H
Street. Hope had burned up as well.
then in 1995, as part of the Green Politics Network, I joined a number of
other Greens in hosting a conference of third party activists. Over a
hundred showed up, ranging from one of the founders of the American Labor
Party to Greens, Libertarians, Perot backers, Democratic Socialists of
America, and followers of Lenora Fulani. It was a recklessly dangerous
idea for a Washington weekend, but John Rensenbrink, Linda Martin, and
Tony Affigne seemed to know what they were doing and I was happy to go
along. We established two basic rules:
- We would only discuss issues on which we might find some agreement.
- We would reach that agreement by consensus.
I was one of the kickoff speakers and said:
"As a simple empirical matter you can say that one of the great
characteristics of Americans is not merely opposition to a system of the
moment but antipathy towards unnatural systems in general -- opposition to
all systems that revoke, replace or restrain the natural rights of humans
and the natural blessings of their habitats.
"This, I think, is why we are here today. If nothing else binds us it is
an understanding of the damage that heartless, leaderless, mindless
systems have done to the specifics of our existence. . .
"Further, in our distaste with the systems suffocating our lives, we are
very much in the mainstream. These systems have done half our work for us,
they have lost the people's faith. . .
"We must stake out a position with real programs for real people, with our
enthusiasm on our sleeve and our ideology in our pocket, with small words
and big hearts, and -- most of all -- with a clear vision of what a better
future might look like. We must tackle what Chesterton called the "huge
modern heresy of altering the human soul to fit its conditions, instead of
altering human conditions to fit the human soul.". . .
"This then is our task. Let's embrace it not as sectarians or as prigs but
as a happy fellow members of a new mainstream. Not as radicals permanently
in exile but as moderates of an age that has not quite arrived. Let's
laugh and make new friends and be gentle with one another. Let's remember
Camus' dictum that the only sin we are not permitted is despair. . ."
Despite the wide range of views present, despite the near total absence of
Robert's Rules of Order, the final document, with full consensus, called
for nothing less than a major transformation. The group unanimously agreed
to support proportional representation, campaign finance reform "to
provide a level playing field in elections;" initiative, referendum and
recall; better ballot access; the end of corporate welfare; strong
environmental policies; sexual and reproductive freedom; an end to the war
on drugs and treatment of addiction as a health matter rather than as a
crime; a dramatic cut in military expenditures; workplace democracy and
the maximum empowerment of people in their communities "consistent with
fairness, social responsibilities and human rights."
Not bad for a meeting at which nobody yelled at anyone.
Interesting stories but how rare.
Now Kevin Zeese and George O'Neill have to try to build on the spirit in
that basement last Saturday and turn it into something that all can see.
Perhaps it will be a catalyst as was, say, the Seneca Falls conference was
for women's rights. Perhaps it will be nothing but another nice try that
didn't work out.
We may never know. After all, only two women who attended Seneca Falls
conference lived long enough to vote.
We do know, however, that good futures are built on the efforts of those
unafraid of failure. At a time when a majority of Americans consider their
system broken, we can either consign ourselves to being victims or we can,
as we did last Saturday, come together in new ways, with new ideas and new
allies and start replacing a failed system with communities that work.
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